Lysacek upsets Plushenko for gold medal

Evan Lysacek stood atop the podium, looking dazed as the first

notes of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” floated through the

arena.

No wonder.

When the guy standing next to him is skating, the medals

ceremony usually has a different soundtrack.

Lysacek became the first U.S. man to win the Olympic gold medal

since Brian Boitano in 1988, shocking everyone – including himself

– by upsetting defending champion Evgeni Plushenko on Thursday

night. Plushenko, retired the past three years, returned with the

sole purpose of making a little history of his own with a second

straight gold medal.

“I saw that American flag go up,” Lysacek said, “and I

couldn’t believe it was for me.”

Someone else was thinking the same thing.

The last to skate, Plushenko held up both index fingers when he

finished, as if to say, “Was there ever any question?” As it

turned out, yes.

And it wasn’t really that close.

When Plushenko’s scores were posted, someone in the arena

screamed, “Evan Lysacek has won the gold!” Backstage, surrounded

by longtime coach Frank Carroll and pairs gold medalists Shen Xue

and Zhao Hongbo, Lysacek threw back his head in disbelief and utter

elation.

“I said to him, `My compliments, you are the Olympic

champion,”’ Carroll said.

An American man hadn’t won a gold since the last time the games

were in Canada – the epic “Battle of the Brians.” There was no

catchy title this time, but the contest was no less riveting.

Lysacek, the reigning world champion, finished with a

career-best 257.67, 1.31 ahead of the Russian. Daisuke Takahashi

won the bronze, the first Japanese man to win a figure skating

medal at the Olympic Games.

Johnny Weir was sixth and U.S. champ Jeremy Abbott rallied to

finish ninth.

“I could have stood up there for hours and thought about every

moment of training that I was thinking, ‘God, what if one day?”’

Lysacek said. “And it kept me going and it pushed me.”

Someone handed Lysacek a U.S. flag to take on his victory lap as

he left the medals podium, and he waved it a few times before

twirling it above his head like a lasso. As he skated around the

arena, he held a bouquet aloft in his right hand and clutched his

gold medal in the left. No way anyone was going to take this away

from him.

Especially not Plushenko.

“I was positive that I won. But I suppose Evan needs a medal

more than I do,” Plushenko said through a translator. “Maybe it’s

because I already have one. But I have to share with you, two

silver and one Olympic gold medal is not too bad.”

Much had been made of Plushenko’s transition scores, the mark

given for the steps connecting the elements, as well as his other

component scores – think of the old artistic marks. But those

didn’t cost him the gold.

Lysacek edged Plushenko on the mark for their technical elements

– jumps, spins and footwork. That’s the score where the three-time

Olympic medalist and three-time world champion has pretty much made

his trademark.

“Plushenko was brilliant in the jumping. He did some brilliant,

very difficult things,” Carroll said. “But if you think of his

skating, he was very brilliant, then down. And very brilliant, then

down. It was going in waves. Evan just sort of stayed in a straight

line and kept going at a certain level from the start to the

finish.”

Even more surprising? Lysacek won without doing that so-called

all-important quadruple jump.

“If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump a quad, I

don’t know,” Plushenko said. “Now it’s not men’s figure skating,

now it’s dancing.”

But Lysacek makes no apologies for what he does – and doesn’t –

do.

He’s done the quad before, but it puts a lot of stress on the

left foot that he broke last year. He originally planned to do the

quad here, but after feeling pain in the foot again after last

month’s U.S. championships, he decided it wasn’t worth the risk of

getting hurt and having to miss the games.

“If it was a jumping competition, they’d give you 10 seconds to

go do your best jump. But it’s about 4 minutes and 40 seconds of

skating and performing from start to finish,” Lysacek said. “That

was my challenge tonight, and I feel like I did quite well.”

The first of the big guns to skate in the last group, Lysacek

seemed more workmanlike than usual for the first three minutes of

the program. Everything he did was technically perfect. His jumps

had the control and dependability of a fine Swiss timepiece, and

his spins were so well-centered you could see the tight little

circle of his tracings clear across the ice.

He didn’t have all his usual flair and charisma, looking more

focused on the tasks at hand. But when he landed his last jump, a

double axel, Lysacek let loose. His face was so expressive that

budding actors should have taken note, and he fixed the judges with

a majestic glare during his circular steps. By the time he finished

his final spin, fans were roaring their approval.

The last note of his music was still fading when Lysacek pumped

his fists and screamed, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” He clapped his

hands and skated to center ice, throwing his arms out wide to the

crowd and blowing kisses. As he waited for his marks, he put an arm

around Carroll, who had yet to coach a gold medalist despite a list

of past and present skaters that reads like a Who’s Who on Ice.

“This is just frosting on the cake for me,” said Carroll, who

coached Linda Fratianne and Michelle Kwan to silver medals and

Timothy Goebel to a bronze. “It’s not something I coveted after a

while. It was something I thought maybe would never happen.”

It might not have, had Plushenko been a little better.

He skated with his usual flair and dramatics, drawing laughs

from the crowd with his saucy, seductive tango. No one loves the

limelight quite like the Russian, and he was in his element. He

preened, posed and skated as if certain another gold medal was

his.

But Plushenko, who can do jumps in his sleep, was noticeably

off. He was crooked in the air on many of his jumps, and had to be

part cat to manage to come down on one foot and hold it long enough

for it to count. But the funky finishes cost him the bonus points

that are the difference between silver and gold. His spins weren’t

quite as good as Lysacek’s, either, and he got fewer points for one

of his footwork sections.

“I am happy with my performance today,” said Plushenko, who

took off his silver medal as soon as he left the ice. “After 3 1/2

years (off) you can win the silver, it’s not bad.”

We likely haven’t seen the last of him, either.

“I knew I would accept any outcome,” he said through a

translator. “After this defeat, I’m not going to put my hands down

and stop.”

For Takahashi, third was as good as first or second.

“To be the first Japanese man to win an Olympic medal, I am

really proud,” he said.

Takahashi is wonderfully expressive, from the bottom of his

blades to the tips of his spiky, mop-topped hair. His edge quality

is as fine as a master carver’s and his blades are like little

lightning strikes, allowing him to change directions and turn

without losing a millisecond of speed.

It makes for a fast, energetic and very entertaining program,

and he infused it with a healthy dose of sass. He played to the

judges and the crowd, taking them along for the ride.

His only flaw was a fall on his opening quadruple toe loop – a

jump he hadn’t landed all week.